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This Is My Family review at Minerva Theatre, Chichester – ‘finds magic in the mundane’

James Nesbitt and Clare Burt in This Is My Family at Minerva Theatre, Chichester. Photo: Johan Persson
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Tim Firth’s better-known musicals The Girls and The Band have been doing the rounds the last couple of years, but this 2013 show could well be his best work.

Firth wrote the music, book and lyrics for this story of a girl who enters a competition to win a holiday for her dysfunctional family. The simplicity is what makes the show sing. It consists of just six or seven tunes, repeated throughout. In this way Firth unearths something a little bit magic in the mundane.

Now Daniel Evans, who directed its Sheffield premiere, is reviving it in Chichester. Clare Burt and Rachel Lumberg reprise their roles as sisters Yvonne and Sian. They’re both brilliant. Burt plays the dry, slightly despairing mum whose fractious relationship with husband Steve (James Nesbitt) threatens the family, Lumberg the loud and fun loving aunt. The new additions to the cast are equally good.

Nesbitt gives a particularly game performance, rollerblading across the stage and taking a very chilly-looking bath in just his swimmers.

While the family holiday plot might seem quite basic and coalesces into a conveniently schmaltzy climax, Firth’s writing has an undercurrent of real complexity. Speech weaves into song, little lines charting the boring bits of family life – “we’re out of teabags…school shirts are in the dryer” – punctuate the music. There’s a layer of poetry to his writing.

The same is true of the music: the repeating themes, moulded to different lyrics may seem quite twee, but Firth tweaks them in fascinating ways. As grandmother May, Sheila Hancock repeatedly sings a hymn that she learned in her childhood, and sang to her son and then her grandchildren throughout her life. Now she’s forgetting it, and Firth’s music keeps modulating into different keys as Hancock stops and starts in confusion.

At the centre of all this is Kirsty MacLaren, as 13 year old Nicky, who semi-narrates the piece. Just as Nicky’s optimism and enthusiasm holds her family together, so MacLaren’s wonderfully warm performance holds the show together.

Richard Kent’s set is a little fussy, particularly when it transforms from a beautifully condensed house, split into coloured segments and looking like the Oliver Bonas Instagram account, into a forest of trees. This looks very cool, but the complexity doesn’t add much to the production.

Otherwise it’s pretty faultless. The cast is top-notch, there’s an abundance of gags and the music is stirring. Evans’ direction keeps everything running smoothly as Firth captures all the weirdness and drama, the humour and sadness, and above all, the love in family life.

Tim Firth: ‘Musicals are the best and worst of what theatre can be’

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Wonderful production of Tim Firth’s musical about a dysfunctional family that finds magic in the mundane